Disclaimer: The phrase "Saban Owns The Power Rangers" shall henceforth be abbreviated as "SOTPR". I just wanted to clear that up early on so there's no miscommunication. Additionally, I should mention that I like fuzzy bunnies. It's not relevant, but there it is.
The door was already open. Carlos frowned, glancing down at the square of paper in his hand. Room 304, in Ladd Hall, AGU's only chemical-free dorm. This was his room... so why was the door open?
He pushed his way inside, dropping his duffel bag on the floor before he glanced around. The single lofted bed was covered with a comforter, but the two bunk beds on the opposite wall were bare. Carlos briefly weighed the pros and cons, and the privacy of the top bunk seemed to outweigh the inconvenience of its location.
"Hey, bro." Gabe's voice came from the doorway directly behind him. "Where do you want this stuff?"
Carlos shoved his duffel bag out of the way with his foot and took a step forward, allowing his brother to enter. "Anywhere," he said, taking a second look at the room. The desk under the loft bed was clearly taken, leaving one desk at either end of the bunk beds. Carlos mentally chose the one closest to the door, where his computer screen would be angled into the room rather than toward the open door.
"Going for the top bunk?" Gabe asked, setting his boxes down in front of the desk on the far wall. "Don't take this desk," he added, without waiting for an answer. He gave the top drawer a tug, but nothing happened. "Drawer's broken."
"This one's mine," Carlos informed him, swinging his laptop carrying case off his shoulder and setting it on the desk by the door. Suddenly wary, he started checking drawers, but they all slid smoothly enough.
"I'll go get the rest of the stuff," Gabe offered, pushing in the drawers on the bureau he'd been checking. "This one looks good."
Carlos glanced at the bureau his brother had pointed out, then at the one on the other side of the room between the loft and the closet. Whoever had taken the loft had a desk and a bureau underneath it already, but the other furniture was only loosely associated with the two bunk beds. Still, if he had taken the desk at the near end of the bunks, it seemed he ought to leave the desk and bureau at the far end for his other roommate. That meant that his bureau would be the one by the closet, across the room from his bed and desk.
"Did you find the room all right?" his mother was asking Gabe when he joined them out on the curb. "What does it look like?"
Carlos rolled his eyes. "Go in and look at it, Mom. I'll wait out here."
"No, that's all right," she insisted. "I'm sure Gabe can stay here with your stuff while we go inside."
He caught Gabe's eye and exchanged amused glances with his brother. His mother had a knack for sounding accommodating while actually getting exactly what she wanted. Grabbing his backpack and a couple of storage crates, Carlos left his mom to pick up bedding and posters as he led the way up two flights of stairs.
"Oh, this is nice," she said, on following him into the room. "A little small, maybe..."
"It's a forced triple," Carlos reminded her. "There were only supposed to be two people sharing the room."
"Will someone be moving out, then?" His mother lifted his pillows, sheets, and comforter up to the top bunk without even asking. "As they find more room?"
"I don't think they're going to 'find' more room until people start leaving at the end of the semester," Carlos said dryly. "We might get down to a double in the spring, but I think we're stuck with each other until then. How did you know I wanted the top bunk?"
"It's a mom thing," she replied, with a tinge of fond distraction in her voice. "That's your bureau, then, over by the closet?"
"It looks that way," Carlos agreed. "I'm going to go get some more stuff."
"I'm coming." His mom took one last look around the room. "Better to have you boys carrying things up all those stairs than to have me doing it one pillow at a time."
Gabe was standing on the curb with his arms crossed, looking twice as menacing as the security officers letting cars into the little residential road to unload. Five years of martial arts training had only enhanced the "don't mess with me" look that seemed to come naturally to his younger brother.
"Expecting someone to steal my clothes?" Carlos teased, following his brother's gaze. The line of cars had not become any shorter in the time they'd been inside, for each had to stop by the security officer and receive a temporary unloading permit before they were allowed to proceed. The procession in could only move as quickly as the trickle of cars heading out, and the wait while those in front emptied out their vehicles was a long one.
Before Gabe could answer, an old Volkswagon Rabbit caught Carlos' eye. Sitting about three cars back in the line for the quad was a little yellow car that looked too familiar to be real. He squinted at it, trying without success to make out the driver's face.
"I thought I saw Ashley's car," Gabe explained, echoing his own instinctive reaction. "Someone over there has a VW just like hers."
"Yeah," Carlos said slowly. "It does look like hers." It couldn't be, of course; she was offplanet... but the similarity was eerie.
"Let's get the rest of your things inside," his mother reminded him. "Other people will need this space to unload."
"Right." Carlos clapped his brother's shoulder and added, "Looks like it's you and me again, bro. Mom's taking over the easy job."
"I knew you wanted me to come for a reason," Gabe grumbled, hefting another set of storage crates.
"Well, it wasn't for your good looks and charming personality," Carlos informed him. He wrestled his stereo off of the ground and trailed his brother into the dorm.
"Why not?" Gabe asked over his shoulder as he started up the stairs. "It's not like you have any of your own. I thought you were feeling the lack."
"The only thing I'm feeling is the incredible amount of time it's taking you to climb these stairs," Carlos retorted. "I think you're getting slower in your old age."
"Look who's talking!" Gabe exclaimed, picking up his pace. "I just didn't want you to feel bad about being left behind!"
"I'm tripping over your heels, man. There's no way you could leave me behind."
"Yeah?" Gabe leaned into the corner and took the second flight of stairs two at a time. It was no mean feat with his arms full of crates, and Carlos' stereo was unwieldy enough to make keeping up almost impossible.
Nonetheless, he managed to arrive close enough behind that he was right there when Gabe looked over his shoulder, and that was all that counted. "Told you," he said, trying not to sound too breathless. "Nice try, though."
"Next time you get to carry the crates and we'll see how well you do," Gabe told him, but he too was panting.
"Like this was any easier," Carlos shot back, setting the stereo system up on top of his bureau. "You try running up the stairs with this thing!"
Gabe didn't even bother replying, just took off out the door and down the stairs again. Carlos rolled his eyes, but his adrenaline was up too and he supposed there were worse ways to burn it off than running up and down the stairs. If nothing else, they'd get his stuff moved in faster.
In the confusion and hurried chaos of shifting his things into the dorm, he forgot about the yellow car for the better part of half an hour. When he stepped out of his room thirty minutes later, though, he almost ran Jeff Hammond down on his way to the drinking fountain. Ashley's brother carried a laundry basket that was full of distinctly feminine clothes, and yellow-laced inline skates rode on top of the pile.
"Jeff!" For a moment, he drew a total blank. "What are you doing here?"
"Thieving," Jeff replied, straight-faced. "There's a lot of good stuff to be found on freshman move-in day. You should give it a try."
From somewhere behind Carlos, he could hear movement followed by his brother's voice. "I knew there was something in this for me. I'll be back in a few minutes, bro. Have the getaway car ready."
"Hello, Jeff." Their mother stepped out into the hallway as well, maneuvering around her sons and ignoring their sarcasm. "We've done as much as Carlos will let us do in his room--can we help you move things in?"
"I'm actually helping my sister right now," he said, switching from wry to polite in the blink of an eye. "Anything you feel like carrying upstairs would be great, but don't feel obligated. Even with the amount she packs, we'll get it all up here eventually."
"Of course we'll help," their mom assured Jeff. "Are all of Ashley's things unloaded?"
"Yeah," Jeff said, shifting the laundry basket to get a better grip on it. "Her stuff is right next to the walkway to the main door. You'll probably see her there; she was going down while I was coming up a minute ago."
Carlos was dying to ask what Ashley was doing at Angel Grove University two months after she'd left for KO-35 with Andros. Unfortunately, now didn't seem like the best time to interrogate her brother about it, so he just followed his mom and his brother out to the curb. They didn't pass Ashley on the stairs, and neither was she waiting out by the curb, but Jeff's directions made her things easy enough to locate.
They had forgotten to ask which room was hers, but Jeff was waiting down the hall for them when they emerged from the stairwell. He waved, and one at a time the three of them squeezed into room 314. "Ashley picked that side," he said, unnecessarily since only one side of the room had anything in it.
"She got a double," Carlos muttered, stepping out of the room to allow Gabe to enter. "Why don't they put girls into forced triples?"
"They do," Jeff assured him. "Sometimes." He helped Carlos' mom settle her load at the end of Ashley's bed, then added, "It's just that guys ignore each other when they don't get along. Girls get vicious. In terms of dorm injury rates, it's better to put three guys into a small space than three girls."
"Carlos!" A familiar voice greeted him from the other end of the hallway, and Carlos turned to see Ashley coming toward him with a duffel bag over her shoulder and a cardboard box in her arms. "I thought I was going to get here before you; you're never up this early!"
"I didn't think you were going to get here at all," Carlos told her, taking the box from her and letting her enter the room first. Gabe moved into the hallway to make room for them, and Carlos put his box down before turning back to stare at Ashley. "What are you doing in Angel Grove?"
"I transferred," she said easily, avoiding the question. "Why spend all that money on gas when I can get a perfectly good education right here?"
"I thought you had to actually attend a school before you could transfer out of it," Gabe remarked from the doorway.
"When you have a three-nine GPA, you can pretty much do whatever you want," Jeff told him.
"There must still be a few things out by the curb," Carlos' mom offered. "Why don't Gabe and I go pick those up while you three catch up a little?"
"Thanks, Mrs. Simione." Ashley gave her a bright smile. "I don't think there's much left, but if there's anything you can't get I'll be down in just a minute."
"Don't worry about it," his mom said firmly. "You stay right here. Give Carlos some decorating tips, if you have time. Goodness knows he could use them."
Carlos just sighed, and Ashley laughed as his family left the three of them alone for a few minutes. "She didn't think much of the Aquitian stuff, huh?"
"How did you hear about that?" Carlos wanted to know. "And where have you been?"
"Yeah," Jeff interjected. "I sent them outside after I passed you on the stairs, and they came back before you. How did you manage that?"
"It's called a bathroom break," Ashley informed him.
"That's not what I meant," Carlos interrupted. "The last I heard, you were planning to stay on KO-35 indefinitely. What brought you back to Earth?"
Ashley hesitated, her cheerful expression dimming just a little. "I'd rather not talk about it right now," she said at last. "It's not a big thing, it's just... I have a lot of unpacking to do."
"Sure," Carlos agreed, taken aback. Something Ashley didn't want to talk about? That had to be a first. He glanced over at Jeff, wondered where Andros was. "Can I help at all?"
"You can tell me where your room is so I can come visit you," she said with a smile. "Are you in this dorm?"
"No, he just hangs out here waiting for random friends to show up so he can put his family to work moving them in," Jeff told her.
Ashley stuck out her tongue at him, and Jeff made the "whatever" sign at her. It was clearly her gesture, especially when he did it, and Ashley rolled her eyes. "Why did I bring you?" she asked rhetorically.
"So that I can find out which room your friends are in without you having to ask," Jeff answered. "He's in 304, down the hall."
"With two other people I haven't met yet," Carlos agreed. "Don't be surprised if a stranger answers the door."
"Same here," Ashley said, a little apprehensively. "My roommate's someone named Missy, and I've only spoken to her twice."
"You spoke to her?" Carlos asked, surprised.
Ashley gave him an odd look. "Didn't you get a letter with your roommate's address and phone number in it?"
"Yeah. So? What was I going to say to them? 'Hi, I'll be your roommate. I hope you don't have anything against aliens, because you're probably going to be seeing a lot of them this semester.'"
Ashley looked amused. "Are you dating more than one, now?"
"She has friends," Carlos told her. "Did you call *your* roommate?"
"Of course," she said, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. "I called once and she called once. Mostly just to talk about what we were bringing; we figured we'd talk about our schedules and our policy on visiting friends once we got here."
"Your policy?" Carlos echoed. "You're going to have a policy on visiting friends?"
"This is another reason girls can't do forced triples," Jeff put in. "Everything has to be decided in committee."
"Delivery," Gabe's voice said from the hallway, and Carlos went over to take it from him so he wouldn't have to try and fit into the room. "This is a small double," his brother remarked, passing the box their mom had carried in as well.
"It'll seem larger once they've unpacked," Jeff offered.
"Well, we'll leave you to it," Carlos' mom said, peering into the room. "Unless we can do anything else to help, Ashley?"
"No," she said quickly. "Thanks for bringing this stuff in; that was a big help."
"You're welcome. Call us anytime if you need anything. Either of you," she added, looking from Ashley to Carlos. "And call us tonight to let us know how you're settling in, Carlos."
"I will," he promised, letting her hug him before stepping back out of the doorway. "Thanks for helping, Mom."
"Yeah, I don't count," Gabe commented. "Don't thank me; really, it was no problem."
"Don't you have some kids to be teaching at the dojo or something?" Carlos wanted to know. He relented when he saw his brother's expression. "Thanks for helping, Gabe."
"You heard Mom," Gabe answered, unable to resist a parting crack. "Let Ashley help you decorate."
His mom waved to the room at large, and Carlos just shook his head as they left. "Just wait until he moves out," he muttered under his breath.
"Speaking of which," Jeff said, glancing at his watch. "Neither of my roommates have apartment keys yet, so I need to get back there before they do. It was good seeing you again, Carlos."
"Yeah, you too," Carlos answered automatically.
Jeff chucked his sister under the chin, then wrapped her in a bear hug. "Good luck, girl. Call me if you need anything, all right?"
"I will," she promised, hugging him back. "Thanks, Jeff."
"Anytime," he told her with a smile. "See you."
She waved after him, then put her hands on her hips as she surveyed the room. "So it's just me and you now, room," she announced. "Let's see what we can do before Missy gets here."
Carlos raised an eyebrow. "Okay... I'll leave you two alone. But first I just want you to know that the fact that you're talking to your room means you should get out more, and since some of us are having dinner at Max's place tonight, you should come."
She looked surprised, though he wasn't sure why. "Some of us?" she repeated.
"Me and Aura, TJ, Tessa, and probably Karen," he elaborated. "Max won't tell us what he's making, but you know it'll be good. Come and hang out."
"You don't have to convince me," she said with a grin. "It sounds great. What time?"
"Tonight at six. I'll give you a ride, if you want."
"Sure," she agreed. "Thanks. I'll come by your room around 5:30?"
"Sounds good." He glanced around her room. "Good luck with this place. And remember, you can talk to it as much as you want, but when it starts talking back? Come find me."
Ashley rolled her eyes, but she laughed. "I will."
"He hasn't made tortellini since the time the stove exploded."
"How about lasagna?"
"He just made lasagna last weekend."
"I bet it's chicken teryaki."
"He might make teryaki. At least I can't think of any reason he wouldn't."
"Do you really have any idea what Max is serving for dinner?" Karen interrupted. "Or are you both just guessing?"
"We're just guessing," Tessa answered cheerfully. "I'm guessing, anyway. TJ's being a big help by telling me why I'm wrong."
They were standing on the sidewalk outside the university bookstore, waiting in a line that only seemed to grow longer as the afternoon wore on. The bookstore itself was so full that there was a staff member at the door, letting small groups of people in as others left. Everyone else waited outside, lining the street for more than half a block.
"I'm just trying to help Karen decide whether she wants to come," TJ protested. "Some of Max's dinners are better than others."
"TJ," Tessa scolded. "You know that's not true."
"You're the one who brought up the tortellini," he reminded her.
"It wasn't his fault the stove exploded," she protested. "These things happen."
"All right, all right," Karen interjected. "I'm coming. If only to hear the stove story," she added, giving them a bemused look. "You said Carlos and Aura are going to be there too?"
"Yeah," TJ said, squinting toward the front of the line. Another four people were being let in, and he could see them stop just inside the door of the bookstore. "We refused to go out with them for at least a month after the last reporter incident, so Max offered to cook in as a compromise."
"Oh..." Karen looked torn between laughter and sympathy. "I think I saw that in the paper. Was that the time the reporter went around to everyone else in the restaurant and asked them what they thought you guys had to do with Aquitar?"
Tessa sighed, but she looked more amused than annoyed. "Yes. We refused to talk to her, so she decided to ask everybody else what they thought to get her story."
"My favorite was the person who thought Tessa might be an undercover Aquitian spy," TJ put in. "Some of the people that reporter interviewed had a few problems with reality."
"Yeah, like they didn't know what it was," Tessa said dryly.
"I had a kid come up to me the next day and ask me why the Aquitians were spying on us," TJ added. "And let me tell you, it's not easy to get a bunch of ten-year-olds back to batting practice once they've been distracted by the idea of aliens."
"You think that's bad?" Tessa smirked. "Remember the guy in the restaurant who thought the Aquitian Rangers were recruiting, and that you might be the next in line to be an alien Power Ranger?"
Karen laughed, but TJ just groaned. "Max *still* teases me about that."
"But at least Max didn't ask if you could get him considered for the position," Tessa reminded him.
Karen gave her an incredulous look. "Someone actually asked you that?"
"One of the lab techs came up to me the next day," Tessa confirmed. "He mentioned very casually that he'd always thought he'd make a good Ranger, and that if Aura ever asked me to recommend someone then he could provide excellent character references."
Karen shot a look in his direction, as if to ask whether Tessa was pulling her leg, and TJ just shrugged. "What can I say? Not everyone likes their job."
Suddenly, Tessa glanced down and pulled her pager out of her pocket. "Ned probably wants me in the lab," she said, studying the number on the screen. She looked up, considered the line that still stretched out in front of them, and shook her head. "Can you guys save my place while I go call him?"
"Sure. Tell him that if he wants you, he can come get your books for you," TJ added, as she started toward the payphone down the street.
Tessa waved to indicate that she'd heard, and Karen grinned. "It won't be worth it," she predicted. "He'd have to be really desperate to offer to stand in this line for her."
"Really desperate, or a freshman," TJ said, eyeing the line suspiciously. "Do you get the feeling that there are more freshmen than all the other years combined in this line?"
"Maybe upperclassmen don't bother to get books," Karen offered.
"Or maybe they get them late." TJ frowned. "Except Tessa. She's here, isn't she."
"Tessa's always an exception," Karen countered. "Maybe upperclassmen have secret hours at the bookstore. If you can prove you've been at the university for at least a year, you get to come in at midnight or something."
"Then they'd have to staff it that late," TJ pointed out. "Maybe there are classes that don't use textbooks, and they just don't tell freshmen about them. We'll have to ask Tess."
"No, don't," Karen said quickly. "She'll just remind me that we could have gotten our books days ago, before everyone else arrived. I didn't think it would be that big a deal, and she laughed at me. Now I know why."
"Did you guys fit all your stuff into your dad's truck?" TJ asked, remembering the two of them trying to pack the day before. Tessa had suggested they take a break to get their books, but Karen, who had had far more to do, had vetoed the idea.
"We did, but there wasn't room for much else," Karen admitted. "My parents came in my mom's car to help us move things in."
"Yeah, sorry I couldn't help with that." Since he was living off-campus with Max he didn't have to go through the hassle of moving himself, but the Athletics director had scheduled a meeting with him for this morning. "My supervisor wanted to talk to me about what I'll be doing this fall."
"You're going to keep working for the Athletics department?"
"Same department, different job," TJ agreed. "I'll be on the Events Staff instead of teaching the sporting camps. The hours are more flexible, and there aren't going to be that many more camps this season anyway."
"Events Staff, huh?" Karen seemed to consider that. "Are they the people that get paid to go to football games?"
TJ grinned. "That's one way to look at it." They were inching along the street, and he glanced over his shoulder to see if Tessa was on her way back yet. "They work most of the games, including homecoming, plus the concerts and alumni events. The Events Staff helps with anything that happens on the athletic fields or in the Rec Center."
"That doesn't sound like a bad job," Karen remarked. He couldn't tell if she was joking or not when she added, "Do they need anyone else?"
"What, you don't want to serve ice cream for another three months?" He kept his face as straight as he could. While Karen claimed to enjoy working at the "dairy bar" over the summer, her unconcealed glee on her last day of work had told another story.
She only shrugged. "Let's just say I'm ready to do something else for a while, and if I'm going to be at the games anyway..."
He chuckled. "I'll pick up an application for you tomorrow."
"Thanks." She peered over his shoulder. "What's taking Tess so long? Is Ned reading her the latin dictionary, or what?"
"She hasn't been gone that long." But TJ had been wondering about her absence too. "Maybe she ran into someone."
"Like Carlos?" Karen suggested. "He promised he was going to stop by and see where we live this morning, since we're all in the same dorm, but he never showed up."
TJ shrugged. "You know Carlos. He probably slept in and didn't get to campus till after lunch."
Karen gave him an odd look. "He's been getting up pretty early these last few weeks, hasn't he?"
TJ frowned back at her. "What do you mean?"
"The time difference with Aquitar is a lot bigger than it used to be," she reminded him. "It's almost half a day off now, isn't it? When he gets up in the morning now, he can go there and catch Aura the night before."
TJ stared at her. "What?"
She sighed. "Never mind. I used to think US time zones were bad," she added, almost as an afterthought. "Then Tess tried to explain to me what happens when different planets have different rotational speeds."
"She tried that one on me, too," TJ said dryly. "I got as far as 'some planets spin faster than Earth, so their days are shorter' and then she started talking about galactic time and leap decades and I gave up."
Karen shook her head. "It amazes me to think that some people study that kind of thing for a living."
"And some people take it for granted," TJ added. "Andros doesn't even think about it."
"Surprise!" Tessa slipped back into line beside them, a cup of vanilla ice cream in one hand and three spoons in the other. "I got us a treat!"
"Augh!" Karen pretended to cringe. "Summer flashback! Get it away!"
"Oh, come on," Tessa coaxed. "It doesn't count if someone else is serving it."
Karen made a token face, but she accepted her spoon without further complaint. "What did Ned want?" she asked, waiting while Tessa took the first spoonful.
"A life," Tessa replied, putting the spoon into her mouth upside down. "What else?"
Amused, TJ wanted to know, "Did you tell him to get lost again?"
Spoon still in her mouth, Tessa nodded vigorously.
Karen buried her spoon in the ice cream and scooped some out with a melodramatic sigh. "Why can't I work for someone like that? I can't even remember how many times I wanted to tell my boss to get lost this summer."
"People who dissect fish together don't worry about things like that as much," Tessa told her. "He wanted me to come stain the 36-hour cells now, before they turned into 37-hour cells, and I told him that if he could tell the difference between 36 hours and 37, I'd do it."
"You also told him he'd have to pay you overtime," TJ guessed, sticking his spoon into the ice cream. It was plain vanilla with no toppings, but somehow, standing out on the sidewalk with his girlfriend and her roommate on a warm summer afternoon, it was perfect.
Tessa shrugged as though that had been a given. "Of course!"
Max's house was very much the way she remembered it: wide open and welcoming, uncluttered without being too neat, and full of good smells. Tessa's bike had been propped up by the garage door when Carlos' car pulled into the driveway, so Ashley wasn't surprised to see her on the other side of the screen door when they climbed the steps.
"Ashley!" Tessa's exclamation was delighted as she opened the door and ushered them inside. "Carlos didn't tell us you were coming! How are you?"
"I didn't know until this afternoon," Carlos put in, following Karen through the door and stepping out of the way so Tessa could close it. "She's living down the hall from me and I just found out today!"
"Ashley?" TJ came out from behind the counter in the kitchen and grabbed her by the shoulders. "What's been going on? You're as bad as Andros at keeping in touch!" He pulled her into a hug before she could answer, and she had to laugh.
"We were busy," she said, hugging him back. "I wanted to call, but you wouldn't believe what it's like on KO-35 these days. There's not much time for personal lives there right now."
"So why'd you come back?" Carlos asked over his shoulder. He was making a show of inspecting the food on the counter, but she knew he'd been wanting to ask that question all afternoon.
She shrugged uncomfortably. There was so much more to the answer than she could put into words. "There's not much time for personal lives there now," she repeated, trying to keep her tone light.
"Well, we're glad you're here now," Tessa asserted, before anyone could feel awkward. TJ's girlfriend put a companionable arm around her shoulder and gave her a quick hug. "And you're just in time for dinner!"
"Max made broccoli quiche," TJ added. "He'll be back in just a minute. He went to take out some laundry just as you guys pulled in."
"Is he still doing your laundry for you?" Karen teased, hitching one leg over a stool by the counter and reaching across it to steal a carrot from the salad bowl. "Honestly, TJ, when are you going to grow up?"
"We take turns!" TJ exclaimed defensively. "This was his week to do the laundry, all right?"
"Yeah, whatever," Karen said, rolling her eyes. "Careful of him, Tess. He doesn't cook, he doesn't do laundry..."
"Actually, he and Max have been doing my laundry," Tessa admitted. "It's cheaper than going to the laundromat twice a month."
"See!" TJ gave Karen a triumphant look. "I don't need to hear any more of your male stereotypes."
"Are we discussing stereotypes?" a new voice inquired. Max appeared in the doorway to the garage, a laundry basket in his arms and a curious look on his face. "Hello, all. How did you manage to arrive during the only three seconds I've been out of the kitchen all evening?"
"Carlos has a knack for it," Karen remarked. "He's never where people think he's going to be at the right time. This afternoon, for instance," she said, raising her eyebrows in his direction. "You said you were going to come see us!"
Carlos grimaced. "Man," he said with a sigh, giving every indication of remorse. "I totally forgot about that. Sorry."
"Where do you live?" Ashley asked Karen, just as a high-pitched trill sounded in the room. Carlos pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and made an "excuse me" gesture as he moved toward the other side of the living room.
"Ladd Hall," Karen answered. "Same dorm as Carlos. Me and Tessa are in room 227."
"The chem-free dorm!" Ashley agreed with a smile. "So am I! I'm above you in 304."
Karen didn't reply immediately, and she realized the other was eavesdropping on Carlos' conversation. Indeed, they two were the only ones who had spoken since his phone rang, and she wondered if everyone else was listening too. Only Max appeared to be minding his own business, taking an extra plate out of the cupboard and adding some more silverware to the stacks at the beginning of an improvised buffet line.
"We were wondering where you were," Carlos was telling the person on the other end of the line. "Is everything all right?"
Whomever he was talking to said something that made him chuckle. "Don't hurt them until after they okay the new specs, all right? If a few of them turn up missing once we have the go ahead, I won't wonder where you are."
"Yeah, okay," he said a minute later. "We're at Max's now. Do you want us to wait?"
There was another pause, and he smiled. "I love you too. See you."
He waited a moment before closing the phone and turning around again. "That was Aura," he said, not seeming at all disconcerted to find them all watching him. "She's going to change and then join us in a few minutes. She says to go ahead and start without her."
Ashley's eyes widened, and she glanced covertly at the others. None of them looked startled to hear that Carlos' alien girlfriend had just called him up on a cell phone from another galaxy. "That was Aura?" she repeated, just as Max clapped his hands.
"All right," he announced, to no one in particular. "Normally I'd wait, but this salad has been sitting out long enough and the quiche is getting cold. Everyone help themselves!"
"I notice we're not sitting at the table," TJ commented. "That wouldn't have anything to do with the monster project you've got spread out in there, would it, Max?"
"Of course not," Max said loftily. "This sort of meal simply lends itself to the buffet style of serving. As an artist, it's important to match medium and subject matter."
"He could have cleared the table," Tessa stage-whispered to TJ. "He just chose not to."
Max pointed at her. "Exactly!"
TJ picked up a plate and silverware, but he gestured to Max to precede him in line. "Send the salad down here while you cut the quiche," he told his uncle. "I wouldn't take a knife to your artwork if my life depended on it."
Max shook his head, muttering about the acculturation of today's youth as he accepted TJ's knife. He cut the quiche into seven more or less even pieces before handing the knife back, then pointed sternly toward the spatula when TJ went to scoop his piece up with a fork. "Don't be lazy," he chided. "It's there for a reason."
While she waited, Ashley found herself standing beside Carlos and she gave him an odd look. "Since when does Aura call you on a cell phone?"
He frowned. "She... oh," he said, a grin lighting his face. "She doesn't. I have one of their communicators." Carlos held up his right hand, and in place of the morpher he used to wear was a thin gold band that she had mistaken for a watch. "Billy hooked it up to my phone so we could talk without being so obvious."
"It's probably going to creep your roommates out anyway," Tessa said, obviously overhearing. She took a roll from the basket and stepped out of the way. "It's not every day you move in with someone wired to another galaxy."
"I would have to actually meet them for them to be creeped out," Carlos answered, handing Ashley a plate and then taking one for himself. "Go ahead," he added, motioning her to go in front of him.
"You haven't met them yet?" Karen asked, scooping some ice into a glass and setting it by the sink. "Does anyone else want water?"
Carlos shook his head. "One of them had already been and gone when I got there this morning, and the other one moved in while Ashley and I were getting our books. I haven't seen either of them yet."
"You might be lucky," Ashley said, putting her fingers on either side of the quiche to keep it from falling off the spatula as she transferred it to her plate. She caught Karen's eye as the other girl filled three more glasses and added, "Me too?"
"Yeah, what's yours like?" Carlos wanted to know. He had set his plate down to carry water glasses to Max and Tessa, and she accepted her own glass from Karen and followed him into the living room.
"She's..." Ashley hesitated, trying to find a comfortable place on the couch and the right words to express her uncertainty. "I don't know," she said at last, as she settled down. "She's interesting, at least."
"What's her name?" Karen asked, delivering TJ's water and setting her own down at the other end of the couch before going back for food.
"Missy Johnson." Ashley took one bite of the quiche and felt an appreciative smile curve her lips. "Max, this is really good!"
"Yes," he agreed immodestly. "It is, isn't it."
"'Missy'?" TJ repeated, paying no attention to his uncle. "Is that short for something, or is that really her name?"
"TJ?" Tessa echoed pointedly. "Does that stand for something, or is that really your name?"
He held up his hands to ward off her sarcasm. "I'm just asking!"
"I think that's really her name." Ashley moved over a little as Karen joined her on the couch, and Carlos took a seat in the big armchair by the television. "It's kind of... appropriate, too."
Carlos raised an eyebrow just as she looked over at him, and she shrugged. "She's a little different, that's all."
There was a knock at the back door, and Carlos jumped to his feet again. "That'll be Aura, sneaking in the back," he remarked, heading for the screened in porch at the other end of the room. The sliding door had been left open, and he stepped out onto it to open the outside door.
It was indeed Aura who stepped through, taking his hand and tilting her head for a quick kiss as she joined him inside. Ashley heard Carlos whisper something too quiet to make out, and Aura smiled. She let him lead her into the living room, and Max got to his feet politely.
"Welcome," TJ's uncle greeted her. "So glad you could make it. There's quiche and accessories over on the counter, with plates and silverware if you'd like to help yourself."
"I'll get you something to drink," Carlos added, seeming reluctant to let go of her hand as he followed her into the kitchen. "You look nice."
She did look nice. The times Ashley had seen any of the Aquitian Rangers out of uniform were few and far between, but their civilian clothes had a simple elegance that the designer in her admired. She wondered fleetingly what sort of fabric they were made of.
"How are you doing with your room?" Ashley asked, glancing over at Karen. "I didn't know you and Tessa were living together, but it must be nice to move in with someone you already know."
Karen and Tessa looked at each other, and shared amusement was plain on their faces. "Well," Karen said after a long moment. "We know what to expect from each other, so that's a help. It's easier... but I'm not sure it's any nicer."
"Hey!" Tessa interrupted. "I'm not the one who had to move the furniture five times before deciding it was better the way it was before!"
"No," Karen agreed with a grin. "But you did try to put the rug down after everything was finally all set up. That was a pain."
"That's because you were moving things until then," Tessa reminded her. "It's easier to slide stuff on a bare floor than on a rug."
"And what of your roommates?" Aura was asking, just loud enough to make her the center of attention as she and Carlos rejoined the others. "Will I be hearing you complain like this about them for the foreseeable future?" She gave Tessa and Karen a brief smile to take the sting out of her question.
"I'd have to actually meet them first," Carlos told her, pulling the footstool away from the armchair and taking her glass and plate from her as she sat down. He perched next to her on one of the counter stools, setting her dishes on the end table between them.
"You have not met them even now?" she asked, looking surprised.
"Neither of them have been in the room while I'm there," he explained, picking up his own nearly empty plate again.
"Ah." Aura seemed to consider that. "Then I assume that if you take the amount of time you yourself spend in any given location and multiply that by three, you may find that you can go the entire semester without ever once interacting with the people you live with."
"Be quiet and eat your food," he told her.
"You have a more objective perspective," Aura said, ignoring his suggestion as she turned toward Ashley. "Does he seem more or less polite than he did when you last saw him? I am trying to discover a trend."
Startled, Ashley needed a moment to remember to play along. She gave Carlos a look of frank appraisal before admitting, "More. He got the door, carried your dishes, and gave up his seat for you. For Carlos, that's pretty impressive."
"That's pretty impressive for most males," Karen put in, setting her glass down and winking at Tessa.
"Excuse me," Carlos interrupted, with as much dignity as he could muster. "We're outnumbered here, so I think the four of you need to mind your own business."
"Weren't you going to say something about stereotypes earlier, Max?" TJ wondered, getting up and carrying his plate to the counter for seconds.
"I was," his uncle replied blandly. "But it's not really topical now."
"I think it is," Carlos insisted. "What were you going to say?"
"Oh, it's nothing." Max's studied indifference had gotten everyone's attention by now. "I just saw a bumper sticker the other day that I thought Aura might not appreciate. Since we seem intent on making sweeping generalizations this evening, though, I might have been wrong."
"What did it say?" Tessa prompted, when he paused.
"It said 'Fasten your seatbelt,'" he answered, twirling the ice around in his glass. "Because 'it makes it harder for the aliens to suck you out of your car.'"
Ashley put her hand over her mouth, trying not to giggle. She saw Karen shoot an uncertain look in Aura's direction, but she couldn't believe the Aquitian would take offense. Not after teasing Carlos about his newfound politeness.
"That's true," Aura said. She wore an expression of sincere agreement that was almost enough to fool Ashley. Then she added, "I believe that also explains Carlos' recent reluctance to wear his when driving. I have assured him that I am extremely persistent, but..."
At this point she trailed off, but Ashley was giggling to hard to ask for the rest of the sentence. She wasn't the only one, either. Carlos took it good-naturedly enough, but when they quieted down he remarked, "What she's not telling you is that it isn't her persistence so much as her patience that's the problem."
That only set them off again. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Tessa poke TJ as he sat down again, and the two of them exchanged whispered remarks. When the room was once again quiet enough to support further conversation, TJ reached out and lifted his water glass toward the middle of the room.
"Tessa suggested a toast," he announced.
"To persistent aliens?" Carlos suggested with a smirk.
TJ rolled his eyes, but he was grinning. "To reunited friends," he corrected, his gaze sliding toward Ashley. "And to the start of a new year."
"Here here," Karen agreed, holding up her water glass.
The others followed suit, and Max added¸"Don't forget seconds! There's another quiche in the oven, if anyone's still hungry."
"I'll take you up on that," Carlos agreed, getting to his feet.
"I wondered where you were hiding it," TJ muttered, reaching for Tessa's plate as well before he followed Max and Carlos around the counter into the kitchen area.
"So can I ask you a question?" Karen asked quietly, glancing over at her from the other end of the couch while the living room degenerated into milling and fragmented conversations.
"Sure," Ashley said, though mentally she braced herself.
"Why did you leave KO-35?" Karen asked, with frank curiosity. "If there's so much work to do there..."
She didn't seem to know how to finish, and Ashley sighed. Staring down at her empty glass, she shrugged once. "Would you believe it was Kerone that told me to go?"
"What?" Karen looked torn between laughter and surprise. "Why would Kerone want you to leave?"
"Oh, she didn't." She'd been gone only a few days, and already she missed the other girl. Andros' sister had become one of her best friends over the last few months, and it had been almost as hard to leave her as it had been to leave Andros. "She just thought..."
Ashley lifted her gaze, and wasn't surprised to find the rest of the room hanging on her every word. So much for a private conversation. "We both thought maybe it was for the best," she finished at last.